Full Predictions for Russell Westbrook's Return to the Oklahoma City Thunder

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) looks to pass around New York Knicks point guard Beno Udrih (18) during the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, in New York. The Thunder won 123-94. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder don't have to miss their superstar guard Russell Westbrook anymore.

Westbrook, who hasn't played since Christmas Day, is likely to return Thursday night, as Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports originally reported. Finally, the Thunder have their point guard back.

No one, though, is rolling out the red carpet for Westbrook. He's not getting the cozy Kobe Bryant treatment with a video of his own. Heck, he's not even getting Marvin Williams treatment.

Instead, his welcome is far rougher.

All Russ has to do Thursday night is come back for a nationally televised TNT game. All he has to do is go up against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. All he has to do is beat the two-time defending champs.

There are going to be those who question Westbrook's value—there always are—but ultimately, his return signals a major turning point in the Thunder's season. 

Kevin Durant doesn't have to do everything anymore. Reggie Jackson doesn't need to run a first-unit offense. All players can slot back into their comfortable roles, the ones they were supposed to be in at the start of the season.

Oklahoma City is already the likely favorite in the Western Conference. And the return of Russ can only help its chances. So now, with the long-awaited comeback finally here, we can start to postulate about how the Thunder will move forward while integrating their second-best player back into the lineup.



Nov 10, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) handles the ball against Washington Wizards power forward Nene Hilario (42) during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Offense has never been Westbrook's problem. That is, for some people.

Scoring won't be an issue. It's never been one. In the 25 games Westbrook played before injuring his right knee at the end of December, he averaged 21.3 points, 7.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds. 

The volume will be there because the confidence likely will, as well. Slight pomposity is part of Westbrook's demeanor. It would be odd to see anything else.

The Westbrook critics, though, will point immediately to his undesirable percentages, which have been subpar even for him this season. Westbrook is shooting just 42 percent from the field and 31 percent from three on the year, and he's taken almost 18 shots a game in the process.

For Russ, though, percentages don't tell the whole story. 

They don't explain the amount he makes a defense move. They don't explain his ability to control a pick-and-roll. They don't explain that defenses collapse in on him every time he drives to the hoop, leaving shooters open on the wings.

In Westbrook's 25 games, in which OKC has gone 21-4, the Thunder have averaged 7.3 points on 7.1 drives from Russ per game. That's not an elite number. It's 102.8 points per 100 possessions. But, per usual, there are some caveats.

Those possessions came early in the year, when Westbrook was healthy. But OKC's shooters struggled at the start of the season, and that surely had some effect on these numbers.

Thabo Sefolosha didn't get off to the hottest of starts. Neither did Reggie Jackson or Jeremy Lamb, but the Thunder have shot about two percentage points better from three since Westbrook got hurt.

Playing with these guys while they're shooting up to their own capabilities from long range could help propel those driving numbers into the elite category, because ultimately, that's the best way to describe Westbrook's effect on an offense: elite



Mar 1, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) plays defense during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center.  The Nuggets won 105-103.  Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder already rank third in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions. Westbrook can help change defensive dynamic even more.

It might be top three in the league, but the Oklahoma City defense is far from perfect.

The Thunder allow opponents to shoot just 34.1 percent from three this season, and that's a great number to have. It's great enough to rank fourth in the NBA. But the three-point defense still isn't perfect.

One of the best ways to measure perimeter defense isn't just by percentage allowed, but also by the aggregate number of three-point attempts allowed. And that's where the Thunder struggle.

Oklahoma City opponents have chucked up the third-most threes of any opposition this season. That's an area where Westbrook can help.

Russ isn't a brilliant defender for 48 minutes, but he's a hyper athletic guard who can close out on shooters quickly. At the very least, his speed and power can allow him to get to shooters quick enough to deter attempts which may have gone up, otherwise.

In actuality, the way to describe Westbrook's defense is that he's a wonderful crunch-time defender.

Apr 15, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) puts up a defensive front against the Sacramento Kings during the first half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Running an offense doesn't allow Westbrook to go as hard as possible on every defensive possession for an entire game. That wouldn't be realistic, and most great players tend to subscribe to some form of that logic.

About halfway into a fourth quarter, everything will change. That's when Russ locks down.

Westbrook is the rare combination of someone who can explode forward, side-to-side, or into the air. And it's that lateral quickness which can become so handy on the defensive end.

When crunch-time Westbrook is on the floor, the Thunder defense can transform. Reggie Jackson has been capable, and he has high defensive potential with his athleticism and those long arms, but he's not Westbrook. Few are.

Point-guard defense can be vastly important, considering it's about guarding the player who is responsible for running the offense. Shut down a point guard, and you're likely decapitating your opponent's attack. Add in that point guard is deepest position in the NBA, and Westbrook's defensive presence becomes even more essential.

The Thunder defense is already one of the best in the fourth quarter this season, allowing 97.7 points per 100 possessions in the final period, tying for third-best in the league. With crunch-time Westbrook added to the mix, it wouldn't be hard to imagine OKC becoming even better.


Kevin Durant Will Take Fewer Shots

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

I know, this is the ultimate bold prediction, right? Durant taking fewer shots with Westbrook on the floor? Oh, the horror.

In the past, the whole "Westbrook is taking shots away from Durant" argument didn't fully hold true once you looked at the numbers. Sure, Durant shot slightly less when he shared the floor with Westbrook, but the difference was almost negligible, unnoticeable to the unbiased eye.

Last season, Durant took 17.4 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes with Westbrook on the bench. But that number barely went down when the two of them were on the floor at the same time, when Durant averaged 16.3 shots per 36.

This year, though, Durant's Westbrook-less mentality has changed a bit. He's shooting more without Russ for extended periods.

Durant is averaging 17.3 shots per 36 when the two of them are on the court together in 2013-14. Without him, though, he's shooting 20.2 times per 36. And he's shooting 20.8 times per 36 since Westbrook reinjured his knee on Christmas.

It's an increase of 3.5 shots per 36 minutes. Now, that is a noticeable difference.

Upon Westbrook's return, those numbers are going to go down, and that's perfectly fine. But it will clearly bring out that one particular faction of people who love to pile the criticism onto him.


The Westbrook Detractors Will Stay Loud

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Really, this prediction is more of an anticipatory warning than anything else, because we're going to hear the Westbrook detractors arise. That is, unless the Thunder go undefeated for the rest of the year. And wouldn't that be something?

At some point, Oklahoma City is going to lose a game, and that's when all those complainers will start to yell and scream.

Westbrook is taking so many shots. Durant is shooting way less than he did with Westbrook gone. Russ is too selfish to play with such a forgiving superstar like KD.

It's already annoying, and it hasn't even started yet.

The strange part is that the argument we always hear from the Westbrook detractors is that Durant shoots less when Russ is on the court with him. But of course he does. Isn't that just common sense?

Throw any superstar on the floor with another player, and he'll take away some of his shots. By that logic, Dwyane Wade makes the Heat worse because he takes shots that LeBron James might be attempting had Wade been off the floor.

It's this weirdly illogical inconsistency that we refuse to acknowledge with Westbrook. Clearly, Durant's volume will go down. And that's not necessarily so bad.


Kevin Durant Will Be Even More Efficient

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Throw a superstar on the floor to complement a mega superstar, and good things tend to happen.

One of the reasons Durant's assist numbers have gone up since Westbrook's knee injury is that defenses have tended to double-team him left and right. In every which way possible, Durant has defenders coming at him, and often, passing is his only way to beat the double.

So Durant has become a distributor when an extra player sticks with him after dribbling around a ball screen. He's swung the rock around the perimeter when closeouts are aggressive and plentiful. He's been the usual, unselfish Durant.

Sometimes, though, KD has had to shoot out of those double-teams, because ultimately, he hasn't had another teammate who can create quite like him. But that isn't true when Westbrook is standing by his side.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Westbrook providing KD with a teammate who actually will get doubled means defenses won't send two defenders at Durant as often. And that means more open looks, which means more made shots.

It's simple, really. Usage and efficiency have an inverse relationship. When a player shoots a little less and takes more uncontested shots, his percentages will probably improve.

Add in Durant's and Westbrook's three-point binge trend from their last full season (in 2012-13, 24 percent of Durant's field-goal attempts were threes when Westbrook was on the floor with him, and only 19 percent of his shots were threes when he ran the show on his own), and KD's already unmatched efficiency stands a chance to shoot through the roof.


Reggie Jackson Will Continue to Get Minutes

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Jackson has averaged 32 minutes per game in 27 contests since Westbrook reinjured his knee back on Christmas, and he's capitalized on that opportunity. 

The 23-year-old has averaged 14.8 points and 5.0 assists over that period. He's improved his shooting and decision-making. He's rounding into a legitimate player.

The Thunder should be confident that Jackson can run the second-unit offense. At this point, that's a given. Once Westbrook returns, he instantly becomes one of the five best backup point guards in the NBA.

What the Thunder have to wonder, though, is how they can manage to keep him in the lineup once Russ is back.

Jackson isn't the type of player you want to put back in his previous role as a strict backup. He's young, he's learning and he's blossoming.

Don't take an innocent nine-year-old kid and let him start drinking coffee. Don't stunt that growth. After all, Jackson may be able to play well alongside Westbrook and Durant.

Playing off the ball can almost allow "Mr. OKCtober" to use his athleticism more. He can tire his defender running and cutting, a part of the game in which he's been actually quite effective in this season.

Jackson has shot 19-of-23 and averaged 1.63 points per play on his small sample size of cuts, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). Meanwhile, he's vastly improved his shooting from his rookie season and even from last year. He's becoming someone who could contribute as an off-ball shooter.

Jackson is hitting 34 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. That's hardly an elite number, but it's a capable one. And it's one that's getting better.

A three-man main dish of Westbrook, Jackson and Jeremy Lamb with a side of Thabo Sefolosha can make for one of the best "guard meals" in the NBA. And if Jackson can become as good off the ball as he is on it, he can make himself into the extra offensive-minded off-ball threat the Thunder have been lacking this season.


The Transition Will Be Seamless

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

We're not going to see restrictions on minutes. And we're not going to see play restrictions, either.

One of the reasons guys like Westbrook and Derrick Rose have been so effective in the past is their abrasive style of play. You can blame their injuries on the helter-skelter cutting and swerving and planting, but that's part of their identity.

Westbrook isn't changing. At least, he isn't changing now—not at age 25.

Remember that it's pretty easy to classify all these Westbrook injuries as just one measly Patrick Beverley gaffe. Russ had never missed a game before he and the Houston Rockets' point guard clanked knees during last year's playoffs. Until that moment, he was seemingly invincible.

So if Westbrook does think of all these injuries as just one problem, which would be perfectly reasonable, considering every ensuing knee issue stemmed from the original Beverley collision, why would he change his mentality? Why would he switch up his style? And why would Scott Brooks want him to do any of that?

As Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman recently tweeted, Durant agrees:

It's going to be like riding a bike. Westbrook fell off, took a break, and now, it's not like he has to relearn how to ride. He just needs to find his comfort level again.

It may not happen the first night, but eventually (and probably sooner rather than later), Westbrook will find it. And that's when the Thunder can push to become the most dangerous team in the NBA.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of Feb. 20 and from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com (subscription required to access some stats) unless otherwise noted. 


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